- from Gaijin Yokozuna:A Biography of Chad Rowan
In 1988 , Chad Rowan was an easygoing, eighteen-year-old part-Hawaiian living in rural Waimänalo, on the island of O'ahu. At six-feet-eight, he'd played basketball in high school but was not inclined toward sports involving more aggressive physical contact. His mother later recalled that, when he first went to Japan to try his luck at sumo, "I didn't think he'd last, because to me, I didn't know if he was tough enough." In addition to being disadvantaged by his gentle nature, his body type was also wrong for sumo. "In a sport where a lower center of gravity and well-developed lower body is prized," said sports writer Ferd Lewis, "Rowan was a six-foot-eight giraffe among five-foot-eleven rhinos."
Like most American kids, Rowan grew up knowing almost nothing about the national sport of Japan. But after being asked twice, he reluctantly allowed himself to be recruited to a sumo beya in Tokyo owned and led by a retired wrestler with the honorific name Azumazeki Oyakata. During a stellar professional career lasting from 1964 to 1984 , Azumazeki Oyakata had competed under the name Takamiyama. He was born on Maui as Jesse Kuhaulua, was also of Hawaiian ancestry, and was the first foreign-born wrestler to win a major sumo tournament. By the time Rowan entered Kuhaulua's sumo beya, another recruit from Hawai'i, Saleva'a Atisanoe was wrestling in the upper, salaried ranks under the name Konishiki. In addition, two lower-ranked wrestlers from Hawai'i, John Feleunga and Taylor Wylie, were training in the sumo beya that had recruited Chad.
Rowan's introduction to the strict, hierarchical world of sumo was not auspicious, as this excerpt from Gaijin Yokozuna, Mark Panek's biography, makes vivid. Kuhaulua worried that he'd made a mistake by recuiting Rowan. "I remember the first time he put on a belt and wrestled. He didn't look very good," Kuahulua said. "Smaller people—a lot smaller people—were just throwing him around in practice." From this shaky beginning, Rowan transformed both his body and his character, using great mental discipline and an unparalleled work ethic. He rose through the ranks at a phenomenal pace. Within three years, he was in the elite, salaried ranks himself. Two years later, wrestling under the name Akebono ("dawn" in Japanese), Rowan had reached the rank of yokozuna: the pinnacle of sumo. Rowan was the first foreign-born wrestler ever to attain this rank and was only the sixty-fourth yokozuna in the history of the ancient, tradition-bound sport, the written records for which date back to eighth-century Japan. In 2001 , Rowan retired from sumo at the age of thirty-two. [End Page 87]
I remember getting on that plane very clearly. I remember that I had one Walkman, one tape, letters, pictures, and one set of clothes. I remember sitting in the back of the plane. Two of us were sitting in three seats. I was kind of surprised at that. I mean, I kind of felt good because it was going to be a long flight, and it was better to be comfortable. I remember sitting down and starting to feel real sad. I brought out a letter from my cousin that I really looked up to when I was growing up. He was about ten years older than I was. He gave me a letter, some pictures, and some other stuff. In his letter he gave me a dollar bill. He wrote that this dollar was supposed to be used only as my last dollar in this world. I still have that dollar up until today. I started crying. But I also remember the other sumo wrestler telling me to take a good look outside because it would be my last look for a long time.Chad Rowan, journal entry
Most flights leave Honolulu for Japan in the morning, just after the trades have picked up and before waves of heat begin to shimmer above the tarmac. In winter, the air is so clear you can see...